By Mark Gutglueck
The San Bernardino City Council this week confirmed that it is purposed to pursue censuring Mayor John Valdivia
Valdivia, who was elected to the city council to represent the city’s Ward 3 in 2011, reelected in 2015 and elected mayor in 2018, began his mayoralty in December 2018 in political ascendancy. He counted among his allies then-Fifth Ward Councilman Henry Nickel and then-Sixth Ward Councilwoman Bessine Richard. Valdivia had lent support to the council’s two newly-elected members, First Ward Councilman Ted Sanchez and Second Ward Councilwoman Sandra Ibarra in their successful November 2018 electoral bids, and this gave him a solid ruling coalition, as his only rivals on the council at that time were then-Seventh Ward Councilman Jim Mulvihill and Fourth Ward Councilman Fred Shorett. In May 2019, when Juan Figueroa, whom Valdivia had backed, won a special election to fill the Third Ward position from which Valdivia had resigned to become mayor, Valdivia appeared to have an airtight lock on the council and substantial sway over governance in the then-215,941-population county seat.
As mayor, Valdivia repeatedly made commitments to do the bidding of individuals and businesses making substantial contributions to his campaign fund as well as to those which hired his firm, AAdvantage Comm LLC, to provide them consulting services. This meant he encouraged the council members over whom he had influence to support with their votes his campaign contributors or clients when those entities had issues pending before the city council. In a relatively short time span, this damaged Valdivia’s reputation. As Valdivia’s credibility as a dedicated and compassionate community leader eroded, first Nickel, then Ibarra and eventually Sanchez distanced themselves from him.
This worsened when three female staff members working within the mayor’s office and then a woman he had appointed to two city commissions accused him of making sexual advances to them. Ultimately, five employees who had worked in the mayor’s office, two men and three woman, filed suit against him and the city, saying they were pressured by the mayor to engage in improper and illegal acts, and had become aware of Valdivia’s bribetaking and trading political donations for official city action which favored those who provided him with money.
In the 2000 election cycle, Nickel and Richard were displaced on the council by, respectively, Ben Reynoso and Kimberly Calvin, as was Mulvihill by Damon Alexander. Richard and Figueroa had been Valdivia’s last remaining allies on the council. Valdivia had hoped that Alexander’s votes might prove out to be ones he could count on. Alexander realized, however, that Valdivia was isolated on the council, and that neither Reynoso nor Calvin were willing to join Valdivia’s coalition, making any affiliation he might form with the mayor pointless. Since December 2020, when the council as it is currently composed was installed, Valdivia has had control of but a single vote on the council, that being Figueroa’s.
The mayor in San Bernardino has limited voting power. He is permitted to vote on the hiring of employees and the appointment of commissioners and committee members, but cannot vote with regard to most other issues or decisions that come before the city council, with the exception of being able to vote to break a tie vote and to veto a 4-to-3 or 3-to-2 vote of the council.
Valdivia’s loss of control over the council represented an existential threat to his continuation not only as mayor but as a politician, increasing his need to raise money to fatten his already substantial political war chest, which currently stands at $394,622.54. Valdivia has continued to raise a substantial amount of money from donors such as Edward Atsinger III, Cole Burr, Tracey Burr, Canon Management DFT, Capitalist Masters Group, Phil Cothran, Dedeaux Properties, Brett Dedeaux, Del Rio Transportation, Diamond Chevrolet, DM Bertino, Josh Dome, Jimmy Espinosa, F4 Starhouse, Gant Trave, Michael Gay, Michael Giuliano, Cesar Gomez, Jerrod Gutierrez, Cody Holmes, JM Endeavors, JM Realty Group, KAL Freight, Don Kaplan, Joshua Kaplan, Troy Kirtley, George Kritikos, Jeremy Krout, Tak Lam, Nicole Landis, LeadNet, Lewis Pacific Partners, Hanhsing Li, Jose Limon, Longo Customs Service, Leonard Lundin, Stephen Matich, Pacific/Lewis Properties, Juan Zuniga, Woodrow Wong, Warmington Residential California, Vone SB LLC, Steve Velazquez, Aldi Ujkaj, Thienes Engineering, Mike Cox, Bradley Steege, Skyline Equities, Sigra LLC, Shryne Group, SGI Retail, Sergio’s Pallet Repair, Michael Sadeghian, SA Recycling, Geoff Rosenhein, Ezequiel Reynoso, Dinesh Ram, Provident Land Associates, Dipak Patel, Jonathan Pauls, Shina Park, Hae Park, and Panda Restaurant Group, largely by telling them or otherwise convincing them that he has control of the San Bernardino City Council.
Valdivia is at a crossroads. He has enough money to likely ensure his reelection as mayor in San Bernardino in 2022, as the more than $400,000 he will have by the time the campaign for mayor next year begins in earnest will allow him to buy television and radio ads, billboard visibility, tailor drafted and subject specific mailers to be sent selectively to the city’s voters in accordance with their ethnicity, political party affiliation, age, gender and income level. Nevertheless, because of the enmity he already has on the council, it is not likely that Valdivia will be able to accomplish much as mayor if he were to remain in that office four years beyond next year. If his donors catch on that he is unable to deliver to them the things he is promising, his future prospects of raising money will dim. For that reason, for some time he has been casting about to find another political office he can seek and succeed in winning, such as in the California legislature.
This year, prior to San Bernardino’s state of the city address, he arranged a VIP [very important person] reception to follow his speech, what was to essentially be a meet and greet with his campaign donors and political supporters. Rather than use the money he has accumulated in his electioneering fund to hold that event, however, he arranged to have the city defray the cost of the soiree, which was held at the Hilltop Restaurant on Kendall Drive. The owners of the Hilltop Restaurant are among Valdivia’s donors. The invitation list to the get-together consisted primarily of Valdivia’s political donors. He did not try to hide the baldly political nature of the conclave, and he did not extend invitations to six of the city council’s members. The sole member of the city council invited was Figueroa, the only member of the council with whom Valdivia is on good terms.
The use of public money for political promotions is illegal. The council moved to challenge Valdivia on what he was doing, even before the event was held. When he went through with the reception as planned, the council called upon the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office to investigate the matter, and it voted to consider censuring Valdivia.
Over the last month-and-a-half, momentum has built toward the council officially rebuking the mayor using the censure process.
Internally at City Hall, the forces in place are divided. In Valdivia’s corner are City Manager Robert Field and Director of Community and Economic Development Michael Huntley. Though City Attorney Sonia Carvalho spent months shielding Valdivia from accusations of wrongdoing and the claims of sexual harassment leveled at him by his former staff members, his often intemperate statements in public, including lashing out at her when she has made interpretations of the law not fully to his liking during council meetings, has soured her on the mayor. Many staff members make a show of cordiality toward him, but evince disdain for him in private. While Field has attempted to maintain a positive relationship with the entire council, his accommodation of Valdivia has not sat well with some of the council, in particular Councilwoman Calvin.
A contingent of residents who have been gunning for Valdivia have likewise accused both Field and Huntley of militating on the mayor’s behalf and enabling him in his pay-to-play shakedowns of those with project or permit applications before the city or who are competing for or have already attained contracts or franchises with the city. An unintended consequence of those accusations, accurate or not, has been to shunt Field and Huntley even further to the Valdivia side of the mayor-council divide.
If, however, Field has indeed used his authority as city manager to attenuate the effort to censure Valdivia, he has succeeded not so much in blocking it as delaying it.
This week, Assistant City Manager Rebekah Kramer authored a report to the council on the council’s previous request for a cataloging of its options in pursuing Valdivia’s censure.
In her report, Kramer endeavored to facilitate the council’s call to “establish whether there is substantial evidence to proceed, provide due process and decide whether to schedule a hearing and consideration of [a] final resolution of censure.” In doing so, Kramer set out a charge sheet against Valdivia which will likely be the blueprint for that action, which the council appears to be on a trajectory to pursue.
Kramer wrote, “A censure is generally understood to be “an official reprimand or condemnation; an authoritative expression of disapproval or blame.” The city council has authority to censure an individual councilmember. A censure is generally adopted by resolution and represents the opinion of a city council or other public body, but does not levy a fine, suspension, or other penalty. While there is no statute directly addressing censure, many local legislative bodies have adopted resolutions condemning inappropriate behavior and violations of policies and laws. A censure is one way of distancing the public agency from bad behaviors that interfere with the agency’s ability to conduct the public’s business. While censure does not remove an elected official from office, it may serve an important purpose by stating to the public that certain behavior is unacceptable to the other council members. It is a form of self-policing for elected officials.”
Thereafter, Kramer got down to brass tacks, and laid out the tentative reasons why the mayor should be officially rebuked. Valdivia’s alleged transgressions included, according to Kramer:
“1. Violation of Fair Political Practices mass mailing regulations. 2. Improper payment of subscription services to support text messages and communications for personal gain. 3. Using [a] personal political consultant to advise and prepare [the mayor’s] state of the city address. 4. Using city staff and expending city funds for personal or political purposes, including the planning and hosting of a personal mayor’s VIP reception. 5. Using a consultant hired by the city to videotape the virtual state of the city address to support the mayor’s personal VIP reception. 6. Submitting reimbursement claims for hotel and food unrelated to official city business. 7. Soliciting sponsorship from [the] Inland Empire Health Plan to offset [the cost of the] personal VIP reception and offering [the] Inland Empire Health Plan special invitations to the VIP reception. 8. Causing [the] city to expend thousands of dollars in investigations and lawsuits related to behaviors found to be inappropriate. 9. Violating the city charter by directing the city manager to fire city employees.”
Notably, because they carry with them the potential of exposing the city to legal liability, Kramer avoided mention of out and out instances of graft Valdivia is known or suspected of being involved in and it made no explicit mention of the accusations leveled at Valdivia in a number of lawsuits filed against the city.
There was some irony in Kramer’s authoring of the report. The ninth element of the charge sheet – directing the city manager to fire city employees – was a partial reference to Kramer herself. The Sentinel is reliably informed that among the city employees Valdivia was pressuring Field to fire were Kramer and Parks, Recreation and Community Services Director Jim Tickemyer. Field did not accede to those requests, and Tickemyer remains in place. Though Field did not cashier Kramer, she has, the Sentinel is told, wearied of having to deal with the mayor, who has constantly pushed her to use her authority to take action that has not been authorized by the city council or the city manager. She has resigned, the Sentinel is told, officially effective August 12, but has already left the city. Human Resources Director Edelia Eveland is serving in her place as the interim assistant city manager. In this way, one of Kramer’s last acts as an employee with San Bernardino was to choreograph the city council’s censure of Valdivia.
As Kramer’s report stated, a censure carries with it no actual direct impact on an elected official’s status. It does, however, provide ammunition for a political rival to use in an effort to prevent the official from being reelected.
Censures are relatively rare. In recent years in San Bernardino County, five examples readily come to mind.
In 2000, the San Bernardino City Council censured then-City Attorney James Penman. At that time, San Bernardino city attorney was an elected position. Penmen was reelected in 2003, 2007 and 2011, but recalled from office in 2013.
In 2003, the Ontario City Council censured then-City Councilwoman Debbie Acker, who was consistently out of step with the direction the remaining four members of the council favored for the city. Acker opted out of seeking reelection the following year.
In 2014, the Ontario City Council considered censuring Councilman Paul Vincent Avila, who like Acker was perennially at odds with his colleagues on the council and was even more strident than she was in raising his objections and hurling insults at his rivals. The council instead of censuring Avila sanctioned him, an act that was distinct from a censure without any practical difference. In 2016, Avila lost his bid for reelection.
In 2017, the Upland City Council, four members of which were pushing for the shuttering of the city’s then-111-year-old fire department to effectuate the county fire department’s takeover of the city’s fire and emergency medical service, censured Councilwoman Janice Elliott for continuously indulging and facilitating residents’ protest of the move. The following year, Elliott, who was then in the middle of a four-year term on the council to which she had been elected in 2016’s at-large citywide election, was elected to represent the city’s First District in the first by-district election in Upland’s history.
In 2019, Winn Williams, who had been elected to the Chino Valley Independent Fire District Board of Directors in November 2018, was censured twice within the first eight months of his tenure on the board, once in February 2019 and again in July 2019. Williams remains on the board, and is scheduled to stand for reelection in 2022.
As the San Bernardino City Council took up the subject of the censure of Valdivia at its council meeting on Wednesday this week, Valdivia portrayed himself as an aggressive politician working on behalf of his constituents, and he painted his council rivals as obstructionists who were politicizing the circumstance for their own gain.
“I have been meeting with residents throughout our community for many, many months, one on one and learning from their perspective and issues,” the mayor said. “Of the topics that are most common amongst the residents are the need to address our city as a whole, and the desperate need to advance the game ball for Team San Bernardino. Most residents are ready and eager to support positive change that will boost San Bernardino’s future success. Unfortunately, as exemplified by Item Number Five on tonight’s agenda [the censure issue], too many city council members are obsessed with engaging in negative politics instead of providing community leadership. For example, I worked my tail off to bring responsible and world class development to our downtown. Beginning in the summer of 2019, I led and interviewed many developers which expressed interest and came up with a short list of top developers to come to San Bernardino. I made my recommendations to our city staff and spent time with them to deliberate and provide my recommendations for our city’s downtown. I encouraged the RFQ [request for qualifications] process, and then I led the city council to the RFP [request for proposals] process, and then politics entered in. As mayor, I worked hard to attract a major investor who would tear down the blighted Carousel Mall, and initiate the much needed renovations of our downtown. Instead of supporting this great opportunity, Councilmember Calvin and her allies rejected the investor solely because of political gamesmanship, halted the demolition study, and inserted herself with faulty accusations, and led this do-nothing city council, which is before you, to a standing halt. The result is that our big elephant in the room tonight is the Carousel Mall, which costs $700,000 to $800,000 in annual maintenance costs and security and board-up services. Now it has come to light that the council’s chosen developer does not have the capacity to do the necessary renovation. Thanks to Councilmember Calvin’s decision to choose politics over progress, San Bernardino is now back to square one on downtown development.”
Valdivia turned to Sanchez. “As mayor, I have also been meeting regularly with regional business leaders to attract new jobs for our families and reduce San Bernardino’s chronically high unemployment rate,” Valdivia said. “Yet, instead of embracing this new economic development, Councilman Sanchez has decided to play political games and instead push for a moratorium that would drive jobs and businesses away from San Bernardino.”
He next addressed Reynoso.
“As mayor I also helped a common sense solution to grind and remove the unsightly pile of concrete in the north end of the city,” Valdivia said. “Many other cities have successfully used this approach for concrete removal on site. Sadly, Councilman Ben Reynoso decided to play politics and killed the cleanup plan. Thanks to Councilman Reynoso, the ugly concrete pile is still there, with no timeline or plan for removal.”
Valdivia continued, saying “This do-nothing city council has it wrong and the voters and residents of this community have had it. They want real, tangible, pragmatic solutions and they want it now. So I ask these members and our community: ‘Where are the jobs? Where are the jobs you have brought to the West Side, Councilmember Calvin? What jobs and businesses have you attracted in your over 13 years of representing Fourth Ward residents, Councilman Shorett? What are you doing every day for residents of the Fourth Ward, Fred?’”
The mayor reached out to sting Alexander, accusing him of spending $5,400 of taxpayer money on ceremonial flags. He said the city council was more interested in “business cards, parking spots, name plates [and] fancy monogrammed shirts” than serving the city’s residents.
He charged the city council with valuing “politics over progress. A city council majority won’t support naming a permanent police chief for San Bernardino. They’re trying to fire our new city manager and rearrange the deck of a ship here called San Bernardino. The people of San Bernardino are fed up with this do-nothing city council who spends all of their time measuring drapes, counting paper clips and all of their time and energy spent on politics, yet our community suffers. Enough is enough, and it’s time for council members to get to work, to stop the negative political antics. It’s time for them to drop their meaningless censure resolution, and start supporting positive changes to make our city better.”
Valdivia’s sallies at the council did not dissuade it from its ineluctable march toward censuring him. Calvin sought to turn the matter into a factfinding effort, and she began to question Field about what he knew about the allegations on the charge sheet Kramer had created. Both Field and Valdivia insisted that the item before the council that evening was procedural to get the consideration of whether a censure should be made to the next level, and that evening’s proceedings were not intended to allow the sort of factual inquiry Calvin was pursuing to take place that night.
Shorett, who observed that in his speech Valdivia was “denying everything and blaming everyone else,” made a motion to have the process move forward, with staff fleshing out and providing evidence to support the charges outlined by Kramer so that they could be presented in a finalized form, after which a formal hearing to allow Valdivia to respond could be held. Thereafter, a vote by the council to censure or not censure Valdivia would ensue.
Councilwoman Ibarra brought up having two or three members of the council form a subcommittee to work on the language of the censure resolution. Shorett said that was not part of his motion, and the wording of the resolution could be arrived at after the independent investigation was completed to determine the facts of the matter.
Both Field and Carvalho emphasized the need for due process. Carvalho did indicate, however, that a portion of the investigation had already been carried out, which had involved the unearthing of “a thousand” pages of documents, some of which, she indicated, appeared to implicate Valdivia in what he had been accused of. Other accusations had yet to be fully documented and substantiated, she indicated.
Alexander seconded Shorett’s motion to have city staff and the city attorney continue with their investigation and upon its completion have the matter brought back for consideration of whether the grounds to create a resolution of censure existed. The measure passed unanimously.
By Mark Gutglueck